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Wilson v. Berryhill

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

June 26, 2018

NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


          Frank D. Whitney Chief United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 9) and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No.12). Plaintiff, through counsel, seeks judicial review of an unfavorable administrative decision on her application for Disability Insurance Benefits under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)[1]. For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED, and Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED. Accordingly, the Commissioner's decision is AFFIRMED.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff filed an application for Title XVI benefits on August 6, 2013, alleging disability since May 10, 2013. (Tr. 169). Plaintiff's application was denied initially on April 1, 2014 (Tr. 100), and upon reconsideration on July 1, 2014, it was denied again. (Tr. 100, 115). Plaintiff requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”), which was conducted on July 28, 2016. (Tr. 120, 35). After the hearing, the ALJ denied Plaintiff's application in a written decision dated August 25, 2016. (Tr. 14).

         In reaching his decision, the ALJ used the five-step sequential evaluation process for the evaluation of disability claims under the Social Security Act (“the Act”). (Tr. 18-19); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(a)(4) (2017). At the first step, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the filing of his application on August 6, 2013. (Tr. 19). At step two, the ALJ determined Plaintiff had several “severe impairments, ” as defined in 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c), including “mental health impairment diagnosed alternatively as schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, mixed.” (Tr. 19); 20 C.F.R. § 416.920(c) (“You must have a severe impairment. If you do not have any impairment or combination of impairments which significantly limits your physical or mental ability to do basic work activities, we will find that you do not have a severe impairment and are, therefore, not disabled.”). At step three, the ALJ found Plaintiff did not have an impairment or combination of impairments that met or medically equaled any of the listed impairments (“the Listings”) found in 20 C.F.R. Part 404, Subpart P, Appendix 1. (Tr. 19-20).

         The ALJ determined Plaintiff could still perform “a full range of work at all exertional levels” despite his impairments. (Tr. 21). The ALJ noted in his residual functional capacity (“RFC”) analysis, however, that Plaintiff was limited to the following nonexertional limitations:

[C]apable of simple, routine and repetitive tasks for two hour intervals throughout the day at a non-production pace, no more than occasional public contact, no more than occasional contact with supervisors, no more than occasional contact with co-workers and restricted to work in a stable work environment, that does not have frequent changes.

(Tr. 21). Also at step four, the ALJ found Plaintiff could not perform any of his past relevant work. (Tr. 29). At step five, the ALJ determined in light of Plaintiff's RFC, age, education, work experience, and the Vocational Expert's (“VE”) testimony, Plaintiff could perform jobs existing in significant numbers in the national economy, specifically kitchen helper, sweeper/cleaner, and automobile detailer. (Tr. 29-30). Accordingly, the ALJ decided Plaintiff was not disabled under the Act. (Tr. 30).

         After receiving the ALJ's decision, Plaintiff subsequently requested a review of the ALJ's decision, which was denied by the Appeals Council on July 8, 2017. (Tr. 1). Therefore, the ALJ's decision became the final decision of the Commissioner. Plaintiff brought the suit before the Court to challenge the Commissioner's decision, and this case is now ripe for judicial review under 42 U.S.C. § 405(g).

         II. Standard of Review

         Section 405(g) of Title 42 of the United States Code provides judicial review of the Social Security Commissioner's denial of social security benefits. When examining a disability determination, a reviewing court is required to uphold the determination when an ALJ has applied correct legal standards and the ALJ's factual findings are supported by substantial evidence. 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Westmoreland Coal Co., Inc. v. Cochran, 718 F.3d 319, 322 (4th Cir. 2013); Bird v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec. Admin., 699 F.3d 337, 340 (4th Cir. 2012). A reviewing court may not re-weigh conflicting evidence or make credibility determinations because “it is not within the province of a reviewing court to determine the weight of the evidence, nor is it the court's function to substitute its judgment for that of the Secretary if his decision is supported by substantial evidence.” Hays v. Sullivan, 907 F.2d 1453, 1456 (4th Cir. 2013).

         “Substantial evidence is such relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion.” Johnson v. Barnhart, 434 F.3d 650, 653 (4th Cir. 2005) (alteration and internal quotation marks omitted). “It consists of more than a mere scintilla of evidence but may be less than a preponderance.” Pearson v. Colvin, 810 F.3d 204, 207 (4th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks omitted). Courts do not reweigh evidence or make credibility determinations in evaluating whether a decision is supported by substantial evidence; “[w]here conflicting evidence allows reasonable minds to differ, ” courts defer to the ALJ's decision. Johnson, 434 F.3d at 653.

         “In order to establish entitlement to benefits, a claimant must provide evidence of a medically determinable impairment that precludes returning to past relevant work and adjustment to other work.” Flesher v. Berryhill, 697 Fed.Appx. 212 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1520(g)). In evaluating a disability claim, the Commissioner uses a five-step process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520. Pursuant to this five-step process, the Commissioner asks, in sequence, whether the claimant: (1) worked during the alleged period of disability; (2) had a severe impairment; (3) had an impairment that met or equaled the severity of a listed impairment; (4) could return to his past relevant work; and (5) if not, could perform any other work in the national economy. Id.; see also Lewis v. Berryhill, 858 F.3d 858, 861 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Mascio v. Colvin, 780 F.3d 632, 634 (4th Cir. 2015)); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1520(a)(4), 416.920(a)(4)). The claimant bears the burden of proof at steps one through four, but the burden shifts to the Commissioner at step five. See Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861; Monroe v. Colvin, 826 F.3d 176, 179-80 (4th Cir. 2016).

         The Fourth Circuit has held:

If the claimant fails to demonstrate she has a disability that meets or medically equals a listed impairment at step three, the ALJ must assess the claimant's residual functional capacity (“RFC”) before proceeding to step four, which is “the most [the claimant] can still do despite [her physical and mental] limitations [that affect h[er] ability to work].”

Lewis, 858 F.3d at 861-62 (quoting 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1545(a)(1), 416.945(a)(1)) (alterations in original). In Lewis, the Fourth Circuit explained the considerations ...

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